Shawn Crabtree

Shawn Crabtree

An interesting agenda item popped up on the announcement for a special called meeting for the Lake Cumberland District Health Department (LCDHD) Board of Directors. A public notice explained the meeting was “to begin the search for an Executive Director due to the pending retirement of the current Executive Director.”

That “current Executive Director” is Shawn Crabtree, who has been the head of LCDHD for 20 years and has been recently seen as the face and voice of the department during the COVID-19 crisis.

Crabtree will be retiring as of August 1, after two decades as the health department’s executive director and having worked 10 years before that in the counseling and administrative fields for Adanta.

That means having 30 years in the State Retirement System, which is one of the reasons Crabtree decided it was time to step down.

“Once you get a certain number of years in the retirement system, it gets less and less financially advantageous for you to continue to stay,” Crabtree admitted.

“I was seriously considering retiring last year, and I didn’t because COVID started happening, and we knew it was going to be a major public health event.”

There was COVID, plus the uncertainty of the legislation that would possibly restructure the way the retirement system looked for quasi-governmental agencies such as the health department. Both were things Crabtree said he wanted to “get settled” before he left.

But COVID appears to be winding down, and the signing of House Bill 8 this past March seems to have settled some of the unease that quasi-governmental organizations had concerning rising pension costs.

Crabtree said he stayed through the COVID-19 pandemic because he thought his previous experiences with public health events such as the Swine Flu, Avian Flu and Hepatitis A outbreaks would benefit the public and the department.

“I hated to leave my communities, my agency and my board in the middle of a crisis, so I stayed on,” he said.

He added, though, that he had every confidence in his staff, who have done well during the past year – and indeed through his entire tenure.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better board or a better group of executive staff or employees or mission. There’s nothing the could have been better about my job this past 20 years,” he said.

Looking back over his time as the executive director, Crabtree said that he considered the first 10 years to be a time of financial prosperity for the state’s health departments – when federal and state funds were flowing in.

“We were growing, and the HANDS [Health Access Nurturing Development Services] program was a new program. We grew it into the largest HANDS program in the state with the best penetration rate into our target market. That was a time of growth. We grew our school nurse program to where we had contracts with all the public schools to provide school nursing.

“We lost that in the last 10 years, because the way we were allowed to bill made it a program that we were losing on. Now different groups provide school nurses,” he said.

“… The last ten years have been a time of financial contraction. Federal funds have slowly eroded. State funds have slowly eroded. Expenses have gone up.”

It was something the health department dealt with during the current pandemic. “We lost about a third of our staff in the last few years. That’s a lot of people that were public health trained clinicians who were no longer with us to help. We were having to hire people off the streets to come in and try to help, and while we couldn’t have done it without them, we didn’t have enough human resources to do all the contact tracing and case investigations that were necessary, on top of everything else we were doing. That’s not the same as having people with public health training and years of public health experience that can have a more expanded role in the response, instead of a more limited, very specific role. But we’ve worked our way through it.”

Crabtree said that the Board of Directors meeting, to be held Monday, will likely only begin the process of looking for a new director, creating the search committee and beginning to advertise the position.

He said he hoped that his August retirement date gave them enough time to find someone and that he would be able to help with any training the new director might need before leaving.

“The agency is in a good place for someone new to come in. I feel good about the position it is in, to be able to hand it off to someone and give them the maximum chance to be successful without having to come in and immediately having to start making major adjustments,” he said.

As for himself, when asked what he planned to do in retirement, Crabtree said “We’ll see what comes along.”

The Wayne County native explained that he had a background as a counselor. He graduated from Western Kentucky University with bachelors degrees in social work and psychology, then earned masters degrees in clinical social work and public administration.

He admitted, therefore, going back to being a counselor and being more hands-on in helping people directly is something he might be interested in doing.

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